Robert Frost as “terrifying poet” of a frozen inner landscape
From The Chronicle of Higher Education, a deeply moving, lovely, and troubling meditation on Robert Frost’s “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” by literature professor H. William Rice, whose father, a Methodist minister, suffered through a transformative depression when Rice was a child and read Frost (among other things) in order to cope with it:
[This] is the first poem I remember reading and appreciating. . . . I first read the poem because my father told me to. He was a Methodist minister and a bit more intellectual than most ministers. I thought that if I read the books he read, I would be smart. But the Frost book he pointed me to was different; it turned out he read it to cope with depression. I can still remember the tattered paperback with white-haired Frost — who was born 139 years ago, on March 26 — looking wistful on the cover.
. . . . My memories of that period in my father’s life are vague, but I do remember how he changed. Subtle qualities of his laugh, his smile, his very presence vanished and never reappeared. There was the father I had before his depression and the father I had after. He was always a good parent, a dutiful husband, and a diligent minister. But the man who survived depression was chastened in ways I could never describe with words.
. . . . Peering into the poem’s ominous shadows with my students, I found that world a scary place. It is “the darkest evening of the year”; the only sound is the “the sweep / Of easy wind and downy flake.” For the person who is depressed, the somber winter landscape mirrors the dark, frozen world inside. It could seem as if one has finally gotten to the heart of life itself, and there is nothing there.
. . . . At the celebration of Frost’s 85th birthday, Lionel Trilling described Frost as “a terrifying poet.” When I first read his work, I would have wondered what could be terrifying about snow falling in the woods on a winter’s evening. The landscape of the poem reminded me of a Currier & Ives print. But Frost captures the essence of depression in the poem’s understated simplicity, as if depression itself is the ultimate understatement: the inability to see anything beyond a frozen landscape.
More here: “Sharing Those Woods, Dark and Deep“
And here’s Frost himself, reciting the poem in its entirety, prefaced by a brief but effective introduction narrated by Garrison Keillor, who describes the poem’s famous origin in a burst of inspiration of almost hallucinatory vividness after Frost had worn himself out writing through the depths of a sleepless night: